If you’re a foreign family in Qingdao, it’s understandable if the thought of spending a summer day at the beach makes you twitch. I mean, come on, it’s July in Qingdao; who’s gonna march their little yangwawas through the middle of this?
Your kids already get more than enough attention on a normal day from the relatively cosmopolitan, local Qingdao urbanites. But throwing them into the middle of a beach that’s packed with domestic tourists like a boiling pot of jiaozi ? That’s just cruel and unusual. And that’s why we know long-term, well-enculturated, fluent-in-Chinese families here who simply don’t do the beach at all.
But when it comes to our family, we’re a little more desperate. Not swimming outdoors in the summer would be… we might as well all be in summer school. So we’ve tried numerous things over the last four years, attempting to make the beach worthwhile. And I think we’ve pretty much got it down. Behold! This is us, on the beach in Qingdao, in July:
Where are all the people? Why isn’t there a ring of photographers around your little blond, curly-haired children? How is it that I can see where the sand ends and the water begins? Over the last few years we’ve distilled a few tricks, like our particular place and times, and the result is that photo (four of those seven bodies are us). We do this nearly every Saturday in not-cold weather from June to September.
A “successful” beach day for us isn’t perfect, of course. On the day that photo was taken I had to politely turn away two requests for photos with our kids, and passive-aggressively angle-out photo attempts from two other people. Drawing a circle around our tent and sandcastle works as an effective barrier on about 95% of the people who pause to look, meaning only one person all day stepped over it to try and get their kid to stand next to ours for a photo (this is pretty much always a domestic tourist from an inland village or small town, where social norms are different). Most passersby don’t stop to look, but those who do merely stand outside the circle for a moment before moving on. An ATV drove up once to check us out. But that’s all in 5+ hours at the beach, which imo is a very reasonable amount of attention to tolerate as a foreign family in a wannabe 2nd-tier Chinese city.
You can see less-successful beach attempts from summers past here:
You don’t have to be like a Chinese immigrant we talked with this past summer in Louisiana. She said she tells Americans to not even bother trying to learn Chinese because “it’s just too hard.”
Chinese is not impossible. It’s not even all that hard. But it is slow. Without an alphabet, it’s tough on kids who grew up on phonics and spelling rules and “it’s good to colour outside the lines!” There’s just a ton of brute memorization. And memorization is not a highly valued skill in our Western education systems. But it’s an absolute necessity for a non-phonetic language.
For example, this is our 6-year-old’s box of Chinese reading curriculum, which she uses at a training centre in our neighbourhood for kindergarten and Grade 1 students (she’s the only 老外):
It says, “Primary students’ commonly used 1500 characters.” That’s FIFTEEN-HUNDRED Chinese characters. For five-year-olds. To memorize in 4.5 months. So that they won’t be left behind next fall by the speed and pressure of Grade 1.
And this is a non-traditional, less-pressure, relatively fun learning system.
By comparison, her English homeschooling curriculum has her memorizing maybe five sight words per week for Grade 1. I googled around, and current standards for 5-to-6-year-olds seem to aim for recognition of around 50 high-frequency words by the end of kindergarten, and familiarity with 300 total words (sight words and sounded-out words) by the end of Grade 1.
Thankfully, our oldest daughter is loving the class and the teacher, who’s competent and experienced, warm but firm in a ruthlessly efficient, no-nonsense Chinese Mary Poppins kind of way.